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Ontario is producing too many doctoral graduates who believe they will be able to crack the academic job market.Christopher Futcher

Ontario's universities are not adequately preparing doctoral students for the reality that few of them will find jobs as professors, a new study has found. Over the last decade, the number of students enrolled in PhD-level programs has doubled even as the demand for professors "does not even come close to meeting the supply."

The report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario recommends that to address the imbalance, the province and its universities must decide why they want to increase the number of doctoral graduates to the level of other jurisdictions and prepare students for jobs outside academia. Students too must hold institutions accountable and insist on statistics on labour market outcomes and career pathways.

Several factors have led to the severe imbalance in the market for tenure-track jobs. Swelling undergraduate enrolments have not been enough to compensate for the end of mandatory retirement, competition from foreign degree holders and increasing reluctance by cash-strapped universities to replace the posts of retired faculty. For many graduates, temporary teaching contracts have become "a way of life," with professors juggling contracts at different universities. The study also adds a note to the recent debate over foreign labour, citing a study that found a third of newly appointed faculty have earned their degrees outside of Canada. This global market is another source of competition for hopefuls from Canadian institutions.

Still, becoming a professor in Canada is an attractive goal. Tenured professors are the highest paid in the world, report higher levels of satisfaction and also work more hours than others. The report points out that the rewards are in exchange for sacrificing prime career and family-building years outside the labour market and then working at lower ranks before reaching the average $115,000 salary for tenure and tenure-track faculty. And with the exception of business, the wage premium between a master's and a PhD degree is much smaller than the distance between a bachelor's and an M.A.

Many of the students who enter graduate programs with the aim of an academic job at the end will never even graduate: Over half of students in humanities and 40 per cent of those in social sciences do not complete the degree. Who's willing to gamble on those kinds of odds? Increasingly, it's younger students who, the study suggests, are responding to credential inflation. Ironically, spending years in an academic environment leaves students with the mistaken belief that their skills are only applicable to a university job.